Tag Archives: ethnic foodways

Recovery Workers, Latinx Foodways, and Small-Business Development in New Orleans

Blog Editor’s note: This is the first installment in FoodAnthropology’s new series on Latinx foodways in North America. We welcome contributions from researchers in this area. More details about the series are here

Sarah Fouts
Lehigh University

Gorditas Zacatecanas

Gorditas Zacatecanas is a family-run booth that opened up in 2011 in the Algiers market, Dix Jazz Market. Photo by Fernando Lopez.

Within the current context of post-disaster response comes the prolonged challenge of recovery and rebuilding. As families return to devastated homes and businesses after Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, multiple links passed around on social media recommend where (and where not) to donate funds. Headlines ask who will rebuild each region and warn against the exploitation of past recovery workers. Photos of Beyonce feeding lines of Hurricane victims offer a scintilla of silver lining in a world of increasing human-exacerbated disasters. Little attention, though, is given to the question of how the reconstruction workers that arrive to these devastated regions to help rebuild will sustain themselves—quite literally, who will feed them.

In post-Katrina New Orleans, Latinx food vendors equipped with mobile food vending systems emerged on the scene, playing a key, yet unnoticed role, in recovery efforts. These enterprises paved the way for growth in Latinx-owned economies in New Orleans over a decade later. My research commenced on this subject in 2011—six years after the storm—working with food vendors and observing the development of these informal food businesses in the New Orleans Metro area as part of my dissertation (and now book) project.

Immediately after Katrina in 2005, with eighty percent of the city underwater, housing options were limited, and places to eat were even harder to come by. Workers were often forced to live onsite in putrid conditions in the homes they gutted. Grocery stores and restaurants remained closed due to water and power outages. For most people, FEMA-issued Meals Ready to Eat (MREs) were the most available option. But beyond just being unsavory, these MREs had limitations—they were served predominantly to the victims of the disaster, leaving many of the one hundred thousand recently arrived Latinx reconstruction workers to fend for themselves.

Responding to this dearth of food options, itinerant Latinx food vendors arrived soon after the storm, from places like New York and Texas, to feed these workers. Fleets of taco trucks came from Houston, strategically setting up at day laborer corners to serve workers breakfast, lunch, and dinner. In some instances, construction workers moonlighted as tamale vendors, maximizing on connections through co-workers to satisfy alimentary demands.

In other cases, Latinx contractors and clean up crew leaders called in pedidos (orders) from food vendors who prepared foods in kitchens in the few parts of New Orleans undamaged by the storm. The cooks spent the mornings preparing foods—often carne asada or chuletas with a side of rice, cabbage salad, and tortillas served in foam hinged take-out containers—for lunchtime deliveries, providing outreach to hard hit areas.

In more complex systems, vendors arrived onsite to sell food to workers using makeshift kitchens built into the backs of minivans or hatchback cars. Stainless steel counters mounted in the backs of these vehicles provided versatile prep spaces with cutting boards, griddles, and crockpots to serve up plates of tacos to hungry day laborers in front of hardware stores and at worksites.

Taqueria

This Mexican-owned taco truck is located on Claiborne Avenue, a main corridor in New Orleans, and features Honduran and Mexican foods. Photo courtesy of Fernando Lopez.

For Mateo, who arrived to New Orleans from Mexico after Katrina, leaving the construction industry to join his family in their burgeoning tamale business was a clear choice. After observing the successes of his wife and sister, Mateo signed on to their venture, delivering hundreds of tamales to the sites where he previously worked. He made more profit selling food than he had in the construction industry. Having settled in New Orleans since Katrina, Mateo and his family converted their tamale business into a larger enterprise, which now consists of two taco trucks and a brick and mortar restaurant.

Likewise, Mirta, originally from Honduras, arrived to New Orleans from Houston to help with clean up, initially gutting schools and businesses. She, too, saw the need for food vendors to feed the predominantly Latinx workers and sent for her three daughters to come to New Orleans. Together, they created an ad hoc restaurant in the back of their rented house, handing out business cards with their address and advertising typical Honduran dishes like pollo con tajadas, baleadas, and sopa de caracol. After a long day at the job site, workers showed up at their residence to pick up food or eat at picnic tables set up in the small patio. But, as their business grew, so did attention from law enforcement. After threats of citations, Mirta and her family used money they had saved to open up a brick and mortar restaurant. Since Katrina, the restaurant has faced some challenges—having moved locations three times—yet it still provides typical Honduran fare for Latinx workers and, increasingly, to non-Latinx clientele.

Pescado Frito

These women sell food at the Westbank Flea Market. Many vendors value the low overhead of these markets to get their businesses underway. Photo courtesy of Fernando Lopez.

Similarly, individuals like Leticia formalized their enterprises by setting up shop in local markets like the Algiers Pulga and the Westbank Flea Market, two open-air establishments located just across the Mississippi River from the French Quarter and New Orleans Central Business District. Capitalizing on the low overhead and high popularity of the market, Leticia shifted her venture from the streets to the stall, selling Honduran foods in the flea market alongside a booth specializing in Oaxacan foods and a Vietnamese farm stand. The flea markets serve as a sort of incubator space for these small-business ventures, assuming little risk, offering steady clientele, and providing basic infrastructure for these budding economies.

After Katrina, the Latinx population in the New Orleans metropolitan area doubled from around 4% to almost 9%. The Guardian reports that in New Orleans, Latinx businesses grew by 47%, compared to 14.5% by non-Latinx businesses. For places like Houston and South Florida, where the Latinx populations were already high, it is hard to predict whether disaster recovery efforts will catalyze a surge in Latinx entrepreneurship the way it did in New Orleans. Nevertheless, anthropologists interested in foodways can use New Orleans as an example to understand how rebuilding work begets these spin-off economies, drawing attention to the ways people forge new businesses by building on old traditions—outdoor markets and street vendors—as well as introducing new methods of selling foods in order to satisfy demands and make ends meet.

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Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, Latinx foodways, New Orleans, North America

Latinx Foodways in North America: A Blog Series

Sarah Fouts, series editor
Postdoctoral Fellow
Latin American and Latino Studies Program
Lehigh University

From threats of “taco trucks on every corner” and immigration raids in restaurants to the (de)criminalization of street vendors, Latinx foodways are front and center in the current political context. Increasingly, scholars use the broadly defined framework of foodways as an approach to understand Latinx issues within a local, state, national and global context. Over the course of the next year, SAFN plans to publish monthly blogs to highlight the myriad of scholarship—past, current, and ongoing—centered on what scholars are studying in regards to Latinx food and foodways-related issues. Considering various approaches to field methods, production, consumption, symbolic meanings, nutrition, access, this series draws on content that spans across the subdisciplines of anthropology. Intersectional analyses that bring in a multiracial lens to the study of Latinx foodways and other communities of color are welcome as well. Submissions—between 500-1000 words—may examine any theme related to Latinx foodways, but we prefer to focus on what is being studied rather than a particular viewpoint or topic. And we always welcome a few photos, if you have them.

Please send ideas and contributions to the series editor, Sarah Fouts, at saf817@lehigh.edu.

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Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, Latinx foodways, North America

Wandering Washington: Food Journeys

Beer and Welding’s sandwich board outside Oasis grocery, Washington, DC.

Beer and Welding’s sandwich board outside Oasis grocery, Washington, DC.

Joel Denker
Washington D.C.

The country’s largest Ethiopian community. The second largest concentration of Salvadorans in the U.S. The demographic details about the Washington metro area don’t square with the popular image. Washington had always attracted immigrants, but in the past, the settlers were small in number, relatively select, and barely visible. Foreigners were mostly students, embassy retainers, and affluent professionals. Now, Washington has not only become an immigrant city, but also a distinctive one. Unlike old immigrant towns, such as New York and Chicago, with their neighborhoods of people from Southern and Eastern European backgrounds, Washington is strikingly a haven for Third World newcomers. Metro Washington may not have a Hungarian restaurant, but it does have a score of Peruvian ones.

When I first arrived in Washington in 1967, after a year teaching in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, I was struck by the city’s small town qualities. Its sweltering summer heat and southern folkways were unsettling for this northeasterner. I soon realized how apt was John Kennedy’s barbed description of the capital as a “city of northern charm and southern efficiency.”

The food mirrored the atmosphere. A few swank, French outlets like the Sans Souci catered to Washington’s political and social classes. The sports crowd and city insiders congregated at the Connecticut Avenue restaurant, Duke Zeibert’s, which my father, an inveterate New Yorker, called a “poor man’s Toots Shor’s.” Baskets of onion rolls on the tables reflected the owner’s Jewish origins. The kitchen turned out chicken in the pot and, sometimes, matzoh ball soup. However, Washington could not boast a Lindy’s, Nathan’s, or a Luchow’s, culinary monuments of my father’s days in the Empire City.

More typical were southern-style lunchrooms and cafeterias. Sholl’s was a chain of cafeterias where ordinary government and office workers were offered breakfast, lunch, and dinner meals at rock bottom prices. The business, whose K Street location I frequented when I taught evening classes across the street, was founded by Evan H. Sholl, who grew up on a Pennsylvania farm. The entrepreneur, a man of strong religious conviction, established his first eatery in the late twenties, at the end of the Coolidge administration. Sholl’s shops served up hearty comfort food, daily specials like veal cutlet with tomato sauce and liver with onions. The dining tables were adorned with prayer cards. Its breakfasts were popular with Harry Truman, a country boy like Mr. Sholl.

In this “white bread” era, unusual ethnic restaurants stood out. Going with friends to the Omega, a Cuban restaurant on Columbia Road, had all the elements of an exotic excursion. The menu highlighted such Spanish specialties as paella and mariscada (seafood stew), along with such Cuban standards as ropa viella (“old clothes”), shredded beef. Like many such early Latin places, its dishes spanned the Americas. I hungered for their chicken enchiladas with a large helping of black beans and rice. The legend that the Bay of Pigs invasion was plotted there accentuated the Omega’s appeal.

The Omega was the first in a parade of Hispanic restaurants that opened their doors to curious Washingtonians. The El Caribe and El Dorado, both pan-Latin spots, also set up on Columbia Road. Not far away, in 1973, the Churreria Madrid began selling churros, Spain’s popular twisted crullers, and making gazpacho on weekends. Other Latin outposts are etched in my memory: Pancho’s, a Mount Pleasant night club with a rollicking mariachi band; Carlos Gardel, a bar owned by an Argentinian, where you ate empanadas in the balconies and reveled in the dance music pounded out by the band below. A nearby Cuban luncheonette, whose name I have forgotten, served media noche, the crusty sandwich of pork and melted cheese, and batidos, drinks made from soursop, mango, and other tropical fruits. A visit to the Calvert Café, a pioneering Middle Eastern eatery, was another adventure. Mama Ayesha, a Palestinian woman who was the room’s guiding spirit, prepared grape leaves at a corner table. Before it became a full-fledged restaurant, the café’s bar enticed drinkers with what were then unusual appetizers—hummus and baba ghanouj.

There were few ethnic food groceries in the early days. Skenderis, a Greek grocery near Dupont Circle, was a haunt of mine. In the cluttered upstairs space, Dino Skenderis started a gift shop which rode the Greek shoulder bag craze during the sixties. It blossomed into a purveyor of feta cheese, olives, nuts, dried fruit, and similar items. Dino carried what was then an unfamiliar product, Colombo Yogurt. I was to learn later and to write about the story of this product. Colombo, the country’s first commercial yogurt, was begun by an Armenian family in Massachusetts, the Colombosians.

As the years passed, I uncovered other hidden eateries. The Islander was one of the most memorable. The Trinidadian restaurant, then mostly a carryout near Georgia Avenue, was presided over by Addie Green, a proud, voluble woman. On special occasions, she wore a colorful turban. Addie initiated me into the culture and lore of her land and her food, a mixture of Indian, African, French, and Spanish influences. I tucked into many a curry with rice and peas and savored drinks like mauby, a slightly bitter drink made from the bark of a Caribbean tree. The Islander was one of the most colorful of the many Caribbean restaurants in the 1980s that the Washington Post Magazine highlighted in a cover article.

Salvadoran restaurants began to emerge as Central Americans flocked to Washington, lured by the magnet of the “capital” city and a host of laboring jobs in hotels, restaurants, and office buildings. Many of the early arrivals hailed from a single town, the small community of Intipuca, which flourished with funds sent back by the newcomers. Visitors to a Salvadoran restaurant encountered such revelations as the pupusa, the country’s variation on the tortilla, and marañon, a drink made from the cashew fruit.

Washington was gradually transforming from a sleepy southern town to a polyglot capital. I searched out novel eateries and wrote stories about my discoveries in a column for the Washington newspaper, The InTowner. One of the early pieces I did in my column, “The Ethnic Bazaar,” was about the Happy Inn, an Indonesian-Chinese eatery in the Cleveland Park neighborhood. It was owned by Eric C.C. Lin, a man of Chinese ancestry who grew up in Indonesia and studied atmospheric physics at Peking University. My wife Peggy and I spent many an evening there. Oseng-oseng, a dish of tiny shrimp stir fried with tempe and green beans in a heavy soy-based sauce ignited with chilis, was a passion of ours. I loved the ring of Indonesia’s culinary language, of words like nasi goreng, gado gado, and rendang.

Immigrant communities, which might have first arisen in the city, now began taking root in the suburbs. Restaurants serving these groups followed. My forays in quest of ethnic food soon required Metro rides from my home in the Adams-Morgan area to far-flung neighborhoods. I was excited by Jamaica Joe, a lunch room in a small Silver Spring, Maryland shopping center, which served up “curry goat,” one of the country’s national dishes. A long train ride to Ballston, an Arlington neighborhood, took me to the Pakistani café, Ravi Kabob, one of the many kebab joints that would mushroom in the suburbs. I was drawn by chicken tikka, nicely charred on the outside and moist on the inside and served with a spicy stew of chickpeas, nan, a piping hot thick bread, and coriander chutney. I washed the meal down with a creamy lassi, the traditional yogurt refreshment.

Photo courtesy of Bistro Bohem, Washington, DC.

Photo courtesy of Bistro Bohem, Washington, DC.

The explosion of ethnic restaurants in the suburbs has rewarded Washingtonians with a wide

array of choices: Afghani, Persian, Yemeni, Egyptian, Guatemalan. Because of the large influx of Bolivians to northern Virginia, Washington can claim America’s largest enclave of these ethnics. Meanwhile, in the city, dining rooms have sprung up to serve once uncommon cuisines. Domku in the Petworth neighborhood near Georgia Avenue features Polish and Scandinavian dishes. A Czech bistro (Bistro Bohem) in the once unfashionable northwest Bloomingdale section has won a strong following.

Photo courtesy of Bistro Bohem, Washington, DC.

Photo courtesy of Bistro Bohem, Washington, DC.

Near Dupont Circle, a long-standing convenience store, the Oasis, is now selling sandwiches created by the operators of a food truck. A young, very affable Salvadoran woman prepares the food in the back of the shop owned by a Persian gentleman. One sunny afternoon at an outside table I enjoyed an El Porco sandwich from the intriguingly named Beer and Welding operation. The sandwich brought together pork shoulder flavored with garlic aioli, pickled spring onions, and ramps with swiss cheese and mixed greens. A Brazilian woman, who worked at a salon next door, sat next to me. We compared notes. I savored the food and mused about Washington’s changing ethnic landscape.

Peppers grilling at Beer and Welding sandwich shop, Washington, DC.

Peppers grilling at Beer and Welding sandwich shop, Washington, DC.

Editor’s Note: This is a guest blog posting from Joel Denker, a historian of ethnic foodways in the United States who has lived in and written about the changing ethnic foods in Washington D.C. He is author of, among many other things, “The World on a Plate: A Tour through the History of America’s Ethnic Cuisine,” (2003, Westview). Denker’s food writings appear on his website, www.foodpassages.com. This is the first in what we hope is a series of postings about the foodways of the D.C. area in anticipation of the upcoming AAA annual meetings. We would love to hear from more scholars with reflections on food and the D.C. area in coming weeks.

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Filed under AAA 2014 Washington DC, ethnicity, Food Studies, foodways, history